Turtle Hospital cares for Florida’s hard cases
Shell of a Good Place
Afunky- l ooking building— bright turquoise no less— sits on the bayside of the Overseas Highway in Florida’s Marathon Key. Formerly known as Fanny’s bar, it looks like something right out of the 1950s. These days, however, patrons arrive by a chauffeur- driven van that doubles as an ambulance, and after being checked in, they are moved to accommodations with a pool. The pool is essential because the patients are sea turtles, and the building today is home to the Turtle Hospital ( Hidden Harbor Marine Environmental Project, Inc.).
Unlike its kitschy outer walls, the Turtle Hospital’s interior is a no- nonsense treatment center. It contains all kinds of up- todate medical equipment needed to treat dif- ferent species and sizes of ailing sea turtles.
About fifty to seventy- five turtles are admitted to the hospital each year. Once in the ER, patients are scrubbed to remove any barnacles or algae. Then, they are weighed, measured, and photographed. The new patient is then X- rayed to see if marine debris or internal fibropapilloma tumors are present.
One of the hospital’s goals is to educate
humans, so a visitor’s introduction to the hospital is a slide show about the local sea turtles: loggerheads, green, hawksbill, leatherback, and Kemp’s ridley. All of these are either threatened or endangered, and most of their maladies are the results of human carelessness.
Pollution, which is usually caused by humans, is the biggest culprit. Oil spills and tar are toxic to turtle lungs and can cause death. Getting entangled in underwater fishing nets or ropes may result in flipper injuries. Worse yet, it can keep them from surfacing. A turtle that cannot surface to breathe will drown. “Fishermen who visit are always surprised to learn about the damage their underground nets can cause,” says the Turtle Hospital’s director, Bette Zirkelbach.
A green sea turtle is susceptible to internal fibropapilloma tumors. For example, when he gets an attack of the munchies, sea grass is the thing to satisfy his craving, so he pigs out. If the sea grass is polluted, it will eventually make him sick and can cause fibropapilloma tumors. This disease can bring about blindness. Then, the turtle will be unable to find food or fend off predators. If the tumors are not removed, he will die.
During the hospital tour, visitors learn that leatherbacks are the largest- living reptile. This animal can weigh up to 2,000 pounds. It takes a lot of jellyfish to keep a guy like that going. Unfortunately, it is easy for him to mistake a plastic bag for a jellyfish. Ingesting the bag can cause intestinal impaction, which can result in the leatherback’s demise.
Surprisingly enough, structures along the shoreline also pose problems. Sea tur-
UNLIKE ITS KITSCHY OUTER WALLS, THE TURTLE HOSPITAL’S INTERIOR IS A NO- NONSENSE TREATMENT CENTER.
tle hatchlings follow light to get to the water, so illumination from buildings can disorient them. This is why many seaside communities regulate lighting along their beaches, especially during sea turtle mating and hatching seasons.
After the visitors’ slide show, hospital guides show guests the turtle operating room and turtle hematology lab. In reptile radiology, they might see a turtle with a cracked shell— the cause most probably being a boat propeller. Those whizzing blades can also severely injure the creature’s head and flippers.
Finally, guests get to visit patients in their private hospital rooms, which, in this case, are oversized tubs. Many patients here have cracked shells or missing flip-
pers. Permanent residents— those who are incapable of surviving in the wild— make their home in the old Hidden Harbor Hotel swimming pool. They seem to be perfectly content in their watery nursing home. In fact, it is amazing how well they adapt to their maladies.
The Turtle Hospital was the brainchild of Rick Moretti. He came down to the Keys in 1980 to help Cubans during the Mariel boatlift. ( That’s when Castro allowed scores of Cuban refugees to immigrate to the U. S.) Moretti bought the Hidden Harbor Hotel to help the Mariel arrivals. One day, he decided to put a tarpon and some other fish in the hotel pool so guests could get acquainted with them. Always interested in environmental issues, Moretti thought that it would be an opportunity to teach kids to be kind to animals.
In 1986, Moretti changed his focus from rescuing people to saving sea turtles. Earnings from the Hidden Harbor Hotel financed the Turtle Hospital. In 2005, how-
ever, Hurricane Wilma caused so much damage that the hotel had to be closed. The hospital is now funded by private donations, grants, foundations, and money derived from visitor revenue. In fact, when you visit, you might want to pick up a little something— a mug or a T- shirt— at the hospital gift shop because your purchases help to keep the hospital going.
The Turtle Hospital is a great place to bring kids. It isn’t often that they can get up close and personal with Goliath reptiles, learn about them, and want to help. “We often get letters from them and their parents,” says Zirkelbach. “Parents say that now when the kids go to the beach, they pick up the trash.”
Every visitor will come away with a better understanding of these wonderful creatures. Hours for humans to visit the patients are 9: 00 a. m. to 6: 00 p. m. daily, and reservations are required. An award- winning travel junkie, Roberta Sotonoff writes to support her habit. Her passion has taken her to well over 110 countries. Bobbi’s work has been published in dozens of domestic and international newspapers, magazines, Web sites, and guides. Visit her online at roberta sotonoff. com.
After arriving in the special turtle ambulance ( above), patients are taken into the emergency room for check- in and to begin receiving treatment.
Returning a turtle to its natural habitat is always a joy, but some turtles become permanent residents of The Turtle Hospital if their injuries, like ones that are caused by boat propellers ( below), prevent their release.